Road Trip: Painted Hills

Ten years ago, when I moved to Seattle and had my first real job, I bought the prettiest calendar I could find with pictures of beautiful landscapes. Every month I was excited to see what the next one would be. On one of those months, I flipped up to a picture of the Painted Hills in Oregon. I had never seen anything like it before. The tan hills were striped with red and black and bursts of yellow flowers saturated the ravines. I was fascinated by this foreign landscape and vowed to go there someday.

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Several years later in 2010, I took a road trip to Bend, Oregon over the 4th of July. I decided while I was there to take a day trip to the place I’ve been wanting to see. So Nali dog and I headed through the Ochoco National Forest to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

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The hills appear otherworldly as you approach the overlook. The colorful strata alternate from tan to red to black and are volcanic in origin. The oldest layers date back to 35 million years ago when this area was a lush, warm, and humid place. Prehistoric animals roamed here: saber-toothed tiger, camels and elephants. The climate was ideal for fossil formation and over the years many important fossils have been found here.

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Native Americans frequented the area gathering roots and fishing for salmon in the nearby John Day river. They were the first to discover and appreciate the fossils here. Much later, in 1811, John Jacob Astor sent trappers out to explore the region. An unfortunate member of the group named John Day became lost and was robbed by Native Americans at the mouth of the river that now bears his name.

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The first stop along the way is the Painted Hills Overlook Trail. This short trail boasts incredible views of the hills in all their glory. The 1/2 mile round trip trail climbs only 100 feet, and Nali and I felt every foot of it in the blazing heat of mid-summer. It must have been 100 degrees. But it was very much worth it. Desert wildflowers burst from the sagebrush and I kept my eyes out for snakes.

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Next I drove a bit further to the short Red Cove trail. A boardwalk curves around the natural smooth clay mounds that tower above your head. I’ve never seen a landscape with such a rich red hue. It seemed unnatural and I was surprised to see life flourishing in the unusual soil. In fact, some of the species here are endemic to the region due to the unique soil.

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I wandered some more on the short trails throughout the park soaking up every bit with astonishment and wonder. I felt as if I had been transported to another world, especially because there were hardly any other people out on the trails. I wondered what it would have been like for the Native Americans and early explorers to just stumble upon this extraordinary place. What did they think of it?

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I finally had to tear myself away for sake of the heat (and my poor black dog) and mosey back to Bend. But not without a stop in one of many small Central Oregon towns for an ice cream cone.

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Hikes Featured in this Post:
Painted Hills Trails

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